Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How to Journal to Heal from Abuse

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a journal and a diary?  In a diary you record the events of the day.  In a journal you can write about events, but you also write about your thoughts and feelings.  Diaries use words in the form of prose.  Journals can include anything, even pictures and poems.  Because journaling gives us the freedom to express our feelings many ways, journaling is a powerful tool we can use to help us heal the wounds of trauma.
I am presenting this blog about how to journal to heal from abuse in two parts.  Part One is short and strictly about how journaling helps us heal and how to journal.   Part Two includes the three examples of how journaling helped survivors heal.  One example is Princess, a domestic violence survivor.  Another example is Kay, a clergy abuse survivor.  The third is me.  I write about how journaling helped me cope with abuse and rape.  Please note that people who are fragile may be triggered by my story and by Kay's story, so read these parts of the blog only as you are able to handle stories of abuse.
Part One:  How Journaling Helps Us Heal:
  1. Retelling our story helps us heal as long as we are telling it to a supportive listener and not having to tell it over and over to different advocates and law enforcement officials.  Sometimes it is difficult to talk about what happened to us, but when we are ready to share, every time we tell our story to a supportive person, the bad thing that happened to us becomes a little bit smaller and less threatening.  The advantage of journals is that they can sit around and wait for us to be ready to share, and they never judge us or criticize us or offer us unsolicited advice.
  2. Journaling can help us prepare ourselves for potential legal action.  As we remember the story and write it down, we can tell it more coherently to judges, attorneys, therapists, or law enforcement officers.
  3. Journaling helps us process what happened to us.  While we did the best we could under difficult circumstances, journaling can help us sit back and look at what happened with some distance between us and a traumatic episode.  With this distance we can work on positive actions we might take next time we are faced with a difficult situation.
  4. Writing about friends, things, and events that help us (i.e. expressing gratitude) or writing affirmations can reframe what happened in a way that helps us feel better about ourselves.  Affirmations are positive statements about one’s self such as, “I am strong and brave, and I keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I am getting through this.”
  5. After a traumatic incident or a conflict with a loved one or a conflict with someone who is trying to help us, writing in a journal helps us calm down from the heat of the moment.  This is good for us as it heals us.  This is also good for our relationships.  It is much better for us to calm down before we interact with other people so we don’t take our anger and pain out on them in ways that may come back to haunt us.  We don’t want to wound and drive away people who care for us or who are trying to help us..
Prompts for Writing can help us organize our thoughts to maximize the benefit we receive from journaling as well as help us get started writing.  Try these prompts:
One: Tell your story as you feel it.  Don’t worry about being coherent.  If you need to organize your story for a legal case or to figure out how to help yourself, you can do that later.
Two: Write your story to someone.  Some say write to your abuser.  The most abusive people in my life use our communications not to solve problems but to wound me.  The thought of writing to them stresses me out so I don't even try.   I write to people who I feel misunderstand me or to people who can help me.  I write because I want them to understand me and what I am going through. Unless the person in question is a close friend used to supporting me or my individual therapist or an advocate who need to know the uncensored truth in order to help me, I usually don't share raw, uncensored versions of my story or my feelings.  When I share my writings with people other than advocates, therapists, and a select few friends, I usually carefully rewrite most of what I share.
Three: After writing about a difficult interaction with someone else, write down what you can do better next time you are faced with a similar situation.  However, make sure you don’t criticize yourself.  Two of the problems survivors face are low self esteem and criticism from self and others.  Remember that you did the best you could in difficult circumstances.  If you feel you made a mistake, turn it into a learning experience.  

For example, write down something constructive to do during future difficulties such as, “I am going to listen more before I speak.”  

Listening to others helps them calm down and tends to calm down the situation.  Please note that listening does not imply you agree with what the person is saying.  It only means that you are behaving in a way that is respectful and not abusive.  Listening can defuse conflict or expose abusive behaviors by others.
Four: Write down helpful quotes and jokes and funny anecdotes that make you laugh or smile or feel inspired.  For example, write down, “I am strong and brave, and I am getting through this step by step.”
Another good example is this quote by Vivian Greene, "Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass.  It’s about learning to dance in the rain."
To make our journals more personal, you can decorate school composition books with pictures and drawings with special meaning to you. Instructions for how to do this are linked below:

Part Two:  The Journaling of Specific Survivors:  Princess’s Journal, Kay, the City of Angles Lady: A Clergy Abuse Survivor's Writings,  and Me and My Journal
How Princess Journaled to Help Heal Herself from Domestic Violence as Well as from Insensitive Comments from Other Christians in Her Community:  

Princess, the domestic violence survivor from Wallowa County, always had very deep faith and wrote about her abuse from the perspective of her faith.  After her husband beat her and shot a gun at her, she feared for her life and left him and filed for divorce.  Unfortunately some Christian members of her community did not support her choices and called her anti-male.  Her husband joined a church and other members of the church blamed Princess for violating Jesus’s anti-divorce espousements.

"And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery." —Mark 1:1-12

Princess, who knew the Bible well and knew that Jesus said and did things in support of women and children that were revolutionary for his day, scoured the Bible to find passages that supported her position -- that Jesus was protecting women from being divorced against their will -- which was legal in his day.  Jesus did not intend to force women to stay with husbands who beat them and shouted at them and sometimes killed them and their children.  Princess found several quotes that inspired her.  Then she wrote her interpretations of what these passages meant.

For example, Romans 7: 2-3:

2 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. 3 So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

In her journal writings, Princess argued, " A husband that practices violence and abuse in a marriage becomes dead to that marriage.  He has killed himself if he forces her to separate from him to keep herself and her children safe."

She compiled these writings into a spiral bound book and coupled them with references to the specific Bible passages that inspired her.  She used these Bible passages as prompts to inspire others to journal about support for domestic violence survivors in the Bible.  Scroll down to the bottom of my blog about Princess and you can find contact information if you would like to purchase a copy of her book.

Kay the City of Angels Lady/ Clergy Abuse Survivor:

Kay was abused by a Catholic priest at age 5.  For many years she lived her life not comprehending how self destructive many of the choices she made were and why she made such poor choices.  She did not even remember what caused her problems until she was in her forties, and her daughter turned 5 -- the age at which Kay was abused by a Catholic priest.  Then Kay began struggling with extremely disturbing memories.

Despite her raw edges, Kay is a gifted writer.  For many years she has used her skills as a writer to eke out a living.  She hopes someday that sharing her story will earn her more than just barely enough money to live on.    She currently is sharing her life story piece by piece in her blog, along with the stories of other survivors and news and opinion about what is happening in the world of Catholic clergy abuse.  Please read her blog but be forewarned that it is not for the faint of heart.  Please note anyone who wants a sanitized, easy to read version of clergy abuse, do not read Kay's writings.  Her writing is filled with raw details and raw anger and pain.  However, Kay is excellent at putting words together and is quite funny when the opportunity to be funny arises, so if you can cope with this, read on.

Kay, the City of Angels Lady/Catholic clergy abuse survivor , remembers being abused by a priest after her daughter turns 5.

Journaling and me
I was sexually abused at age 4.  I did not journal about that incident.  I was too young.  I began journaling when I was 11, the year my family went on a cruise to Alaska.  I knew the trip would be special and wrote down my memories in pencil in a notebook.  The pencil marks have since become smeared, and the journal is a somewhat challenging to read.  Later, in high school, I wrote in pen in spiral bound notebooks.  In college I graduated to writing in bound journals that are easier to write in when there is no hard surface to write on.  Now I write on the computer.  I also keep many of my sent and unsent e-mails.
Until my forties I rarely spoke about my abuse and rape outside of the pages of my journal.
These are the things that journaling did for me:
Writing down what I felt helped me better understand what happened to me and how I was harmed.  I never forgot being sexually abused at age four or raped on a date at age 22, but I did not come to terms with these two events until I was in my forties.  The event that prompted my self examination was the removal from ministry of the priest who baptized me Catholic at age 41.  One of his survivors came forward for the fifth time since being abused, but this fifth time was different.  His accusations were finally printed in newspapers, prompting some of the priests’ other survivors to come forward.  I began reading about the clergy abuse scandal.  Then I reached out to survivors.  I found some so wounded and fragile that they were barely able to get through the day without self destructing.  I also found these clergy abuse survivors difficult to work with so I began reading about child sex abuse to better understand them.  As I read about the symptoms of sex abuse I realized that I, too, had experienced many of these problems.  I was very aware that many survivors of child sex abuse struggled with depression and drug and alcohol use, but I was unaware of the myriad of other symptoms also experienced by survivors of abuse and rape.  I was very familiar with the symptoms of depression having struggled with depression most of my life but I have never been remotely inclined to use, let alone become addicted to alcohol or illegal drugs.  I hate mind altering substances.  My mother was alcoholic.  I went through her odd behaviors caused by drunkenness such as setting the table on fire when she tried to light a cigarette.  Since I experienced the destructiveness of alcohol through living with my mother, and I did not want to make my life worse than it already felt.
Coincidentally, by my forties, a family member revealed my mother had survived child sex abuse too.  My mother was not only alcoholic, she also struggled with major depression and rotated in and out of mental hospitals throughout my childhood.  When I was 28, she died from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, Congestive Heart Failure, and Chirrosis of the Liver -- diseases caused by smoking and drinking.  These two addictions are often used by survivors to self medicate.  As I read more and more about the symptoms survivors experience, my mother’s struggles made sense to me.  Sadly, my children never knew their grandmother, who had many good qualities when she wasn't drunk or overwhelmed by depression.  My first child was born when I was 36
My mother’s hard life resulted me in having a hard life.  My depression and relationship issues could have been caused by how my mother's struggles impacted me,  but as I read more and more books about rape and child sex abuse I realized that that there were other symptoms I experienced that could only be caused by these traumas.  
Symptom One: I had extreme difficulty with feeling abandoned after the end of romantic relationships.  This is a common problem for survivors for multiple reasons.  Survivors often do not receive adequate support from their parents which causes them to be more vulnerable to predators.  Then, they often do not receive adequate support from their parents if they report the abuse.  In addition, they may feel abandoned by the abuser, who grooms them by showering them with attention and approval and gifts.  However, the abuser normally does not perceive the humanity of their victims.  They move onward to a new victim when they tire of the old one, or if the abuse is revealed, they protect themselves by abandoning and denying the victim.  The end of a romantic relationship causes the victim to relive this abandonment.  My journals are filled with long passages of me agonizing over feeling unloved and unworthy of love after the end of every romantic relationship with any meaning to me.
Symptom Two: I knew the sex abuse I endured at age 4 was bad.  I was even more aware that the date rape I suffered at age 22 harmed me, but I was not aware of how much damage I suffered after these two events until when I went back and read my journals 30 years after I wrote them.  I have only three memories that preceded the episode of abuse I endured at age 4, but I do remember being uncomfortable with hugs and touch throughout my life.  I always thought that this was due to my White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) family's discomfort with touch.  We hugged by lightly touching the other family member's shoulders and kissing the air next to their ear.  When I reread my words in my journals in 2005, I read about meeting a high school chum after we both started college.  My chum asked me if I was as difficult to hug as I was before college.  I was.  My friend was  also from a WASP background.  He didn’t come from an expressive or physically affectionate family either, but he did not have my problems with touch.  I did not connect the dots between my discomfort with hugs and my abuse at age 4 until I reread my journals.  Then my sensitivity to touch jumped out at me.  I realized that it went well beyond my White Anglo Saxon Protestant background.
Symptom Three: Another problem that jumped out of the pages of my journals when I reread them in 2005, was how fearful I felt if my brother had a group of friends over to our house.  I was OK with one boy, but if two or more came over I went into the closet and would not come out unless I was bodily carried out.  I felt an inexplicable anxiety that I attributed to shyness.  I was sexually abused by two boys -- a thirteen year old and a fifteen year old.  I guess my brother didn’t count as he was just an ordinary, bullying, older brother.  He did things that I would tell my own son not to do, but what he did in no way compared with those who abused and raped me.  
How Journaling Helped Me Heal: 
 I didn’t understand how I was harmed by sex abuse as a child so I didn’t talk about it.  I also remained silent after being raped on a date.  The circumstances of the rape did not make me look good and probably would not be prosecutable even today let alone in 1981, when I was raped.  I journaled about the rape and what I felt afterwards, but I did not reread those pages until 2005.  What I read was a revelation.  I wrote about how dirty I felt after the rape, how I felt like a whore.  I wrote that I felt as though I was nothing more than a trophy to men who would cut out the insides of me and mount them on the wall if they could.  Even now, if people ask me about the child sex abuse I endured, I am OK, but if they ask about the rape, I begin to cry.  The trauma was just a one time event that lasted less than an hour.  But I relived the trauma after I reread my journals in 2005.  I felt depressed and tearful for months.  Now, when I talk about the date rape, my pain resolves after just a few minutes.  When a victim shares his or her story in an atmosphere of safety, it can return a small amount of their humanity each time he or she is listened to.  I’ve heard from victims that they have been rewounded by having to talk to multiple people about their case so each person’s needs and each situation is individual.  Perhaps, for some people, especially recent victims, it is best to share their story with only one person.  Unfortunately, people who do not have training in listening sometimes make mistakes such as trying to give advice, judging the survivor, or simply overreacting to a horrible story.  Writing down one’s story can provide a way to share the story safely, without judgement.  
I also use journaling to cope with a difficult situation I am going through right now.  I have abusive people I cannot discharge from my life no matter how much I would prefer to never see them again.   I cannot name them or explain the circumstances of the abuse.  If I did, they would almost certainly use my honesty against me.  Almost every interaction with these abusive people is challenging.  I journal about my interactions with them to help me calm down after I interact with them but also to document what they do and say.  In addition, I journal to examine my interactions with them and with the professionals who work with us to try to improve my interpersonal interactions and communication skills.  These abusive people keep coming up with new ways to torment me, so I have to keep learning new coping skills.  Journaling helps me calm down and figure out what to do.
Writing prompts, such as telling my story to someone, help me write my story.  Some people advise to write to your abuser.  The most abusive people in my life  would only use my words against me so trying to tell them my story does not inspire me.  I write to people who I feel misunderstood by or to people who can help me.  I write because I want them to understand me and what I am going through.   I want them to hear my story, so I tell them what I am thinking and pour out my anguish caused by me feeling misunderstood or unsupported.  However, I do not send these letters and e-mails to the people who don’t support me or understand me.  I want them to remain open to me, so I try to express myself to them diplomatically.  A practical example of how I accomplish this is I write an e-mail and save it without sending it.  Six to 24 hours later I come back and rewrite the e-mail.  I cut out my anger and stick to business and then send the rewritten, much shorter and much less emotional e-mail.  However, I like to save the original e-mail to help me remember what happened and why I am angry or hurt.
One of the things I do when I am struggling with conflict with someone I love, is to use a gratitude journal to remind me of all the good this this other person has done for me.  This softens my heart and helps me be kinder and gentler in my interactions with them.
Lastly, I sometimes like to write down helpful quotes and jokes and funny anecdotes that make me laugh or smile or feel inspired.  Usually I do this on Facebook by sharing memes including my own memes.  

For example, I have written down over and over, “I am strong and brave.  Sep by step, I am getting through this.”
I also am very fond of the song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from the Monte Python movie, Life of Brian.  The words are a bit naughty and the movie is considered sacrilegious by many people.  The members of Monte Python were agnostics and atheists. They decided to skewer Christianity because so many Christians are hypocrites.  They read the Bible in preparation for writing a script for the movie and decided that Jesus said many good things, so they could not skewer Jesus himself.  However, they skewered Judaism of the first century, Christians, the Romans, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and just about anyone else they could skewer.  

When I am feeling down, I find Always Look on the Bright Side of Life on You Tube and start singing along.

Sometimes I write down a portion of the lyrics how I remember them (probably incorrectly):
Life’s a piece of sh*t when you think if it
….When life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten --
To Laugh and dance and play and sing.
What these lyrics remind me is sometimes life is really unfair.  It is absolutely ridiculous that anyone should have to live through such awfulness and mistreatment.  So I am just going to laugh at how ridiculous it is that I am going through these awful times.  I am just going to laugh and dance and play and sing because I’ve tried everything else, and nothing works, so I have nothing else to do.

Except journal about it.
© 2014 Virginia Pickles Jones

Check out my Facebook at Compassionate Gathering.

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